Have you seen Candace?

It was a Friday afternoon, November 30, 1984 and I was occupied with all the Friday afternoon trivia of trying to tidy the house, getting ready for a busy but fun family weekend. Our oldest child, Candace, was eagerly anticipating her friend from summer camp, Heidi, spending the weekend with us.

The telephone rang. “Mom?” It was Candace.

I glanced at my watch. It was almost four. “I thought you’d be on your way home by now,” I said.

“I know,” she paused, then giggled. “David just gave me a face wash!”

I had been hearing that boy’s name more and more. She asked me to pick her up from school which I often did, but I hesitated. There was lots more tidying to do. The other two children, Odia, nine, and Syras, two, would have to get bundled up, and they were already cranky and tired. I asked her to call back in five minutes so I could call my husband Cliff, to see if he could get off work early, and I could pick up Candace and Cliff all in one trip. No, that wouldn’t work, he had to work until 5. If I picked up Candace, that would mean waiting in the car a half-hour with three tired, hungry children.

Candace called back. “I can’t pick you up now,” I said, “but tonight we’ll go shopping alone for the groceries you want for you and Heidi,” I promised. She assured me she had money for the bus, so she would either take the bus or walk.

“Hurry home,” I said.

“Yup, see you.” The telephone clicked.

I was relieved that she hadn’t sounded too disappointed. I continued my chores, thinking about all our plans. Suddenly I stopped. Something was wrong. I looked out the window. It had been warm, but now the ground was white. The temperature was plunging, and Candace hadn’t dressed for this weather. I started to pace the floor. It was getting unusually dark. She should be home soon.

It would soon be time to pick up Cliff. Perhaps if I drove the route Candace would be taking home, I might still catch her. I packed the kids in the car, and I told Odia to watch her side of the road while I watched mine. When we reached Candace’s school, Odia said, “Mom, where is she?” The question seemed to resound through the car.

“I don’t know,” I answered as calmly as I could. I needed Cliff. We drove to his office. “I can’t find Candace,” I said, “and I’m worried.” He took one look at me and grabbed his briefcase. I told him about the afternoon, the calls, and how nothing would have kept Candace from coming home from school today. Heidi was coming.

We reached the car doors, and for a moment we looked across the car roof at each other. There is something to be said for 15 years of marriage. I could see that all my fears have been transferred to Cliff’s eyes. Once we were in the car, we would appear calm for the children’s sake.

We backtracked along Talbot Avenue, ever watchful. We reached home, calling for Candace but the house was quiet. We went through the details of her calls, and then I began calling friends while Cliff went back out to search more roads. She had transferred from public school to a private school, Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute, just that year, so many of her friends had changed. From her MBCI friends I learned that Candace had lingered after school, hovering near the phone. Then she had washed faces in the snow, and she was last seen walking alone on Talbot Avenue on her way home.

Police began their investigation after waiting an additional half-hour because the natural suspicion is always that a missing 13-year-old is a runaway. Friends, family, and church members gathered to support us as we kept calling people. The school counselor verified he had talked to Candace that day, but that she had been in good spirits, no reason to suspect her running away.

That first endless night, I couldn’t sleep, and kept a vigil by the living room window. I sensed that Candace needed me, that she was struggling. The hours were torturous. I cried out to God, “Why?” and prayed that God would protect her from pain. I felt God was crying too. And then I felt silence. At that moment, I asked God if Candace was in heaven; I felt like something was over.

We had forgotten that Heidi was coming, and she showed up the next morning and had to be told about Candace’s disappearance. Police searched our home, and condemned me for picking up Candace’s diary to see if it would have any clues. A massive search through the neighborhood turned up nothing. Friends began a media blitz with posters and photos throughout the city of Winnipeg. Stories and rumors circulated. Leads sprang up and died. A group called the Candace Derksen Citizens Search Committee announced an award.

After nine days, my mother and father left to go back to their home and we were faced with Christmas. Our family went through the motions, crying between gifts. Church friends held prayer meetings.

About seven weeks into the search, Candace’s body was found in a shack just off a brick and lumber yard by an overpass. She had apparently frozen to death, hands and feet tied, otherwise not much harmed. She was found by a company foreman who had gone into the shed looking for a part. We identified her frozen body at the hospital. That evening, the father of another murdered child came to share his own experience and how the murder had destroyed his life, health, ability to work and concentrate.

That night, as Cliff and I talked, I said that the visitor had unwittingly brought an unspoken message that “if we look for justice, it will destroy us.” We forced ourselves to replace the horrible last images of Candace’s body with memories of our lively, lovely teenager from better days.

We invited the media to the memorial service because we felt that the reporters had become friends who had been with us on a long journey through the previous two months. Also, so many people in the city of Winnipeg and surrounding area had been taken up with the disappearance and loss.

Other murder cases held our attention, always making applications to our situation. We were grateful that our faith in God gave us options other than vengeance, something other than remaining victims. We both knew that in order to be truly free, we would have to turn what was meant for evil into good. We would have to forgive by faith–a step totally in the dark, a matter of decision. At the press conference the next day, Cliff indicated that we had chosen to forgive; yet I wondered.

One day a friend came to visit, and casually asked, “If you could let yourself go, what would satisfy justice for you? Would it be execution?”

I had never allowed myself to ask the question, and finally responded, “No, it wouldn’t be enough. Execution wouldn’t completely satisfy me emotionally. If the offender were executed, he would be dying for something he did, he would deserve it. Candace was innocent. There’s no equity in that. One death wouldn’t satisfy me. Ten child murderers would have to die, and I would have to pull the trigger myself.” I was shocked at my words, and even more by how delicious the feeling was.

But as I envisioned in detail the gruesome scene, I also thought of the families of those ten faces, feeling their loss as keenly as my own. “Even that doesn’t satisfy,” I concluded. “So I think our choice to forgive is the right one.”

The horror didn’t end; rumors circulated about Candace; we endured the roller coaster of false leads about suspects. We received the well-intentioned advice of friends and relatives. Eventually police came to question and suspect that Cliff himself was the murderer, thinking perhaps Cliff had found Candace in a compromising position with the young man she had been talking to, and had punished her by tying her up in the shed, not meaning for her to freeze to death. Police thought we were religious fanatics.

Dealing with the questions of our surviving children proved to be a balancing act in grief. I didn’t want to pay too much attention to Candace’s memory, so that they would become jealous, yet I wanted them to see my grief so that they would know that if something happened to them, I would grieve for them, too. But one day Odia said, “This wouldn’t have happened, Mom, if you had picked Candace up when she called.”

I knew that this was real for her. The death of her sister had created havoc with her own feelings of safety and her belief in our ability as parents to keep her safe. You can’t ignore questions and moments like this with children. I sat down and said, “You’re right, I should have picked Candace up. If I could redo that day, I would pick her up. I’d sit outside that school all day, just to make sure I didn’t miss her. But when there is a tragedy like this, we look for someone to blame. When something happens, there are usually a lot of people that are at fault. I should have picked her up. The police should have listened to us right away. Dad should have come home earlier. But most of the blame has to land on the person who actually did it. Candace should have been able to walk home from school safely. I’m sorry too. It’s the one regret that I have to live with for the rest of my life.”

We felt we were free-falling the next couple years, wondering where we would land, trying to go on but suffering all the financial, spiritual and emotional upheaval of a life turned around by tragedy. Finally I got up the nerve to ask Cliff the one question I had never been able to ask, why he had never blamed me for not picking up Candace from school that day. I told him he had surely been angry with me, that he must have thought it. “Why didn’t you ever express it to me?” I pushed.

“I couldn’t,” he said softly. “I knew that if I did, if I even hinted at it, it could have destroyed you.”

He was right. Everyone else could say it, but if Cliff had blamed me, I would have been devastated.

“But surely it must have been hard sometimes to keep those kinds of emotions inside. What kept you from saying it?” I went on.

He looked honestly amazed at my question, as if I should have known. “I love you,” he said simply.

©Wilma L. Derksen

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Wilma L. Derksen

Wilma Derksen volunteered with the Child Find organization for three years, which concentrates on missing children; and then began working with a newly formed organization, Family Survivors of Homicide. Through this organization she began to watch other surviving family members go through the ordeal of a trial, sentence, and appeal, and though she believes in offenders needing to face responsibility for their actions, she saw in a new way how the justice system doesn’t really serve the needs of victims.

“When a life has been taken, society expects the person who took it to pay with his own life in terms of a sentence or execution,” Wilma said. “When we forgave, did we just obliterate Candace’s life? No, when we forgave, we took responsibility for Candace’s life . . . Taking responsibility for my rage and for her memory is difficult, but freeing. It’s helped me gain control of my life again and give meaning to hers.”

Two years after Candace’s death, a pool named the Candace Derksen Memorial Pool at Camp Arnes, the camp where Candace had spent many happy days, was dedicated.

“Candace left a vacuum in our lives that demanded to be filled. The Old Testament justice that demands a life for a life is inadequate in the long run,” said Wilma. “The New Testament shows that if we were always to act on the bare bones of justice, everyone would be missing their eyes and teeth.”

Wilma has since worked with a variety of church and citizen groups regarding victims’ needs and rights, and in 1996 began employment directing a Victim’s Voice Program through Mennonite Central Committee’s Canada office. In early 2000, a group of prisoners serving life sentences at Stony Mountain Institution in Manitoba established the Candace Derksen Fund to help victims of crime set up healing programs.

Wilma has written the following books:

Have you Seen Candace?

Walking after Midnight: One Woman’s Journey
Through Murder, Justice, & Forgiveness

Confronting the Horror: Aftermath of Violence

In May 2007 (23 years after her disappearance), new DNA testing lead Winnipeg police to charge and arrest a 43-year-old man, with the murder of Candace Derksen.

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